clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A dense, but socially distanced crowd carries paintings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor behind a line of masked protesters who, together, are carrying a banner that reads, “I can’t breathe, justice for George Floyd, justice for all stolen lives.”
People march outside Hennepin County Government Center, honoring George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, in Minneapolis on March 28.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

Filed under:

Why the Chauvin trial feels so momentous

Whether Derek Chauvin is convicted or not, his trial will have an important legacy.

Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

If the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, feels momentous, it’s because it is.

It’s been nearly a year in the making, ushered into being by nearly 365 days of activism and anger, and by the millions who chanted Floyd’s name while vowing to honor his memory.

It’s not that we haven’t seen many people killed by police before. Their last moments have become familiar: A confused jumble of body camera, security, and bystander footage heavy with struggle and fear, pleading and uncertainty, the noise of shots. Security and body camera footage often possess a cold, official veneer, while bystander clips are often shot from a distance. This can create a kind of remove, as does the fact these videos often unfold quickly, dense with movement until the moment the person killed slumps and falls.

But the video of Floyd’s death was different. Millions of people across the United States and the world watched intimate cellphone footage, clear and close, of a death that was painfully slow. To watch that clip is to watch a person’s life slipping from their body a little at a time.

On a tree lined street, a crowd so dense it looks like a river of people. Most have on masks, and most carry signs raised above their heads, with messages like “White silence is violence,” BLM!,” “Riots are the language of the unheard,” and “I can’t breathe.”
Hundreds march following the death of George Floyd, outside the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta on May 29, 2020.
Ben Hendren/Anadolu Agency.Getty Images
Beneath a red traffic light, a thick crowd packs a street; the shot was taken from above, and the people stretch backwards into the photo’s vanishing point. Here too, many carry signs: “Justice for George Floyd,” “No justice, no peace!,” and many, many reading “Black Lives Matter.”
Another group of hundreds march after Floyd’s death, in Houston, Texas, on May 29, 2020.
Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

We aren't often confronted with death like that — seeing Floyd die as he did would hurt any mortal person. To relive it through this trial is to have that still-fresh wound scraped raw.

But through the pain of recollection, the trial offers a way to begin healing some of that damage. And it’s this opportunity that gives the proceedings some of the ponderous weight they possess.

What form that healing might take varies given the individual. For some, a conviction would be restorative; for others, the attention being paid to police misconduct is a reason for hope; and for others still, the trial feels full of promise — as if it could be an important step toward creating a more just existence.

Should Chauvin be acquitted and be allowed to continue on with his normal life, some would find themselves in despair, convinced that oppressive systems are impossible to change; others might resolve to devote more time and energy to activism. An acquittal, however, would invite everyone to once again question whether there ought to be any limits on police conduct — and to struggle further with how race and policing intertwine.

All this makes the Chauvin trial feel different; that, no matter the outcome in a few weeks, it will have a significant effect on how police are viewed, as well as how we choose to be policed. After it ends, remnants of the feelings it engendered will remain, and those feelings must be embraced as we look for ways to prevent more deaths like Floyd’s.

The Chauvin trial is a reflection of our collective grief and powerlessness

That Chauvin is on trial at all is not the norm.

While there’s no good national data on police killings, a database of police shootings does exist, and as Vox’s German Lopez has explained, those seldom result in prosecution: Slightly less than 2 percent of officers face manslaughter or murder charges following on-duty shootings.

“Even having an officer be placed on trial is a small victory, when you look at the lack of accountability that we have seen when police kill Black people,” Seft Hunter, director of Black-led organizing for the social justice organization Community Change, told me.

Its rarity amplifies something true of all trials: that they are rituals meant to create closure and healing. Through familiar rites, trials are meant to interrogate the past, and, if necessary, correct a wrong. And as any ritual does, the trial provides a platform for expression and for reflection.

That there was a wellspring of angst to express was evident in the testimony the prosecution’s witnesses gave. After having been sealed away for nearly a year, pain and guilt and rage and sadness came rushing out, as those who lived Floyd’s final moments alongside him were able to at last publicly release their feelings. All those watching at home who were wounded by Floyd’s death had an opportunity for release as well — to see their emotions manifested live, to share in the pain of the witnesses, and to be reminded that their feelings were valid.

Nelson, in a dark suit, blue shirt, and red tie, looks at a computer as he sits at a table with a microphone. Chauvin, in a grey suit, blue shirt, and blue tie, looks on.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson (left) and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on April 6.
Court TV/AP
McMillian, a bald Black man in a tan suit, shirt, and tie, wipes tears from his eyes as he sits on the witness stand.
During witness testimony on March 31, bystander Charles McMillian, 61, sobbed on the stand as he listened to himself tell Floyd, “You can’t win!”
Court TV/AP
Williams, a Black man with a black goatee, dabs his eye with a tissue with a bowed head as he sits on the witness stand.
Witness Donald Williams wipes his eyes while giving his testimony on March 30.
Court TV/AP

“Every time he dropped one tear, I dropped two to three,” George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told the Star Tribune after listening to the testimony of 61-year-old Charles McMillian, who’d tried to help Floyd during his arrest. “It was just terrible just watching him.”

McMillian wept inconsolably as he gave his testimony, so overcome after watching footage of Floyd begging for help that he was unable to speak for a moment. When he found words, all McMillian could say as he wiped away tears was, “Oh my God.”

Another witness, Christopher Martin, now 19, worked at Cup Foods, the store where Floyd was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. He told the jury he watched Floyd struggle to breathe beneath Chauvin’s knee with “disbelief and guilt. If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided.”

Darnella Frazier, 18, recorded the now-famous video of Floyd’s final moments. She too spoke of guilt, saying amid tears, “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting, and not saving his life.”

Those tears, and the others shed by witnesses, were shared not just by Philonise Floyd, but by so many watching — as was the sense of helplessness. There was nothing anyone who has seen Frazier’s video could do; Floyd was already dead. There was nothing those who stood in front of Cup Foods could do; police officers were pushing them back, demanding they not interfere.

Those who have watched Floyd die, in person or on video, are unified in their despair. The trial has been yet another opportunity to grieve the loss of that life, and the loss of all the other lives taken under similar circumstances. It has created a space for collective mourning. It has also been a reminder of the erratic nature of grief, with all of its bursts of anger and melancholy and weariness. The trial has caused new traumas that will need to be addressed after it ends; this ritual may make a place to gather in grief, but it cannot, on its own, end it.

A fisheye view of the scene outside Cup Foods as Floyd died; Frazier and other bystanders film; Martin looks on. Some bystanders are in a bus shelter waiting for the bus. In the top right hand corner is the date and time.
An image from a police body camera showing bystanders filming as police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Minneapolis Police Department/AP

And that is in part because the danger Floyd found himself in remains. Frazier spoke of the particular pain of seeing in Floyd her father, her brothers, cousins, uncles, and friends, saying, “I look at how that could have been one of them.” It very well could have. One 2019 study found that Black men have about a one in 1,000 chance of being killed by police.

On May 25, 2020, Floyd was that one in 1,000. But on any given day, it could be anyone else. It could be me. This trial becomes an opportunity to pause and ponder whether this sort of statistic is acceptable, to ask whether anyone should die at the hands of police and to contemplate whether Chauvin’s actions were appropriate.

Floyd used some of his final words to say that they were not, telling the officers around him, “I’m about to die today.” Chauvin’s tactics were also condemned by onlookers, ordinary people who demanded the former officer get off of Floyd before beginning to plead for him to give Floyd some relief, shouting, “He’s not moving,” and, “Check his pulse,” and, “He’s not responsive right now.” Several called the police on the police, hoping some officer might be able to get Chauvin off of Floyd and show him some compassion, even though they doubtless knew it was fruitless.

The trial exemplifies not just a collective grief but also a collective powerlessness. What can we do to stop this from happening now, tomorrow, ever again? It can feel as though the public has no control over the police, and that the police have absolute control over the public. But that dynamic must be altered in order to ensure deaths like George Floyd’s don’t continue to happen. There have been loud calls for change, and from them have come nascent but promising plans for true reform.

The Chauvin trial is a reminder of the burgeoning reform movement

The Chauvin trial comes as the United States has reflected more deeply in the past year on how race and policing are intertwined, reflection that has been a direct result of Floyd’s death.

The protests animated by the horrifying video of Floyd’s death were massive — early estimates suggested that as many as 26 million people participated — and brought together a broad coalition of identities.

As they progressed, polling found Americans becoming more contemplative about race; a Democracy Fund/UCLA Nationscape poll taken the week after Floyd’s death found that 96 percent of Americans believed Black Americans face racial discrimination. A Washington Post/George Mason poll taken around the same time found that 81 percent of Americans believed the police need to make changes to ensure all Americans were treated equally by law enforcement.

Whether these opinions mark a permanent change or are fleeting remains to be seen. More recent data is inconclusive. For example, while a Vox/Data for Progress poll taken April 2 to April 5, 2021, found 52 percent of likely voters believe police officers are more likely to use deadly force against Black Americans, a USA Today/Ipsos poll taken March 1–2 found that same percentage of Americans believe police misconduct is composed of “isolated incidents by a few officers.”

That reflection happened at all, though, has created conditions in which change does feel possible. Now, Ati, the president of the social justice group By Any Means Necessary, told me, “there’s a fire ignited in this nation. … I hate that it had to take the continual deaths of Black and brown people, but I do believe that we’re making progress in the right direction.”

This new reality is evident in the trial itself. The prosecution’s case turns in part on clarifying the role racism played not just in Floyd’s death but in how the defense usually portrays Black victims: It brought Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, to the stand to provide a nuanced understanding of the complexities of addiction in a manner that attempted to rebut the stereotypes surrounding Black drug addicts; it has had Black witnesses who refused to allow themselves to be cast as angry and out of control; and it has worked hard to humanize the man who died, beyond the racist tropes the defense has employed.

Ross, in a back suit jacket, red and black blouse, and red and black hair, lists her glasses to wipe tears from her eyes as she sits on the witness stand.
Courteney Ross, George Floyd’s girlfriend, answers questions on the witness stand on April 1.
Court TV/AP

Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor and former police officer Philip Matthew Stinson once told me that “many, many police officers are afraid of Black people.” Body camera footage played during the trial certainly shows officers treating Floyd as a danger, with former police officer Thomas Lane pointing a gun at him shortly after approaching his vehicle, and telling him to “Put your fucking hands up right now.” Later, three officers wrestled him to the ground as he’s in handcuffs and speculate — as the officers who beat Rodney King incorrectly did 30 years ago — that “He’s gotta be on something ... PCP or something.”

Thus far, the defense has worked to suggest that Chauvin’s use of force might be justified and that even a handcuffed suspect might still pose a threat to officers’ safety. But in the telling of Ross and the other witnesses, Floyd was not a scary Black man requiring an aggressive response, but a man like any other — someone deserving of aid, not violence.

Most people want those in distress to get aid — a desire that is at the core of the movement to defund the police. Defunding was a somewhat niche concept before Floyd died, and even as it became a rallying cry during 2020’s protests, many rejected it as something that sounded ridiculous.

Now, however, with some time and understanding, there appears to be broad support for the idea — that money should be subtracted from police department budgets and added to the budgets of departments providing social and health services — even if many still don’t like the term.

The recent Vox/Data for Progress poll, for instance, found 63 percent of respondents saying they support moving some money from police departments to other groups tasked with handling things like mental health crises or addiction. Such a reallocation of resources could also conceivably mean giving business owners someone else to call when they suspect a customer is trying to buy something with a fake $20 bill — rather than an armed police officer.

This shift in thinking has already led to change in the wake of Floyd’s death. A number of cities have begun experimentation into what defunding — and other structural police reforms — might look like.

Los Angeles voters approved a defund measure in the 2020 election, and the city council there recently approved the transfer of $32 million to programs that provide alternatives to policing as well as public health initiatives. Baltimore cut $22 million from its police budget, hoping to fund community programming and spur economic development; the city’s new mayor has said he wants to go further in thinking of ways to “decrease our dependency on policing.” Other cities, including Las Vegas, Austin, New Orleans, and Seattle, have reduced their budgets as well.

A crowded night time protest featuring many people in masks; the camera is focused on a white woman in a grey sweatshirt who is raising a sign with blue hearts that says “Defund LAPD.”
Last November, Los Angeles voters approved Measure J, which requires that 10 percent of the city’s general funds — an estimated $360 million to $900 million per year — be invested in social services and alternatives to incarceration, not prisons and policing.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
A white woman with red hair, wearing a floral shirt and a black mask with a lace veil, holds a green sign with blue and red ’60s style bubble letters that says “Defund the police.”
A critique by police reformers of all ideologies is that American cities rely far too heavily on law enforcement to address issues like substance abuse, mental health, and homelessness.
Javier Tovar/AFP/Getty Images

Some cities have decided to completely reimagine their police programs. Ithaca, New York, recently approved plans to replace the city’s current police department with a “department of public safety” that encompasses police officers and unarmed officials who will be tasked with responding to “certain non-violent” calls. Minneapolis has embarked on a similar project following a pledge by the majority of its city council to “dismantle” the police department and replace it with a new department with a broader skill set — an initiative voters are expected to weigh in on during November’s municipal elections.

Still other cities have begun to invest in a more expansive public health infrastructure. Eugene, Oregon’s Cahoots program — which sends mental health and medical professionals to certain emergency calls instead of police — drew intense interest in the months following Floyd’s death; now other localities, like Denver, have begun to pursue similar programming.

The federal government hopes to encourage other local governments to adopt this model as well: The American Rescue Plan contains a provision called the State Option to Provide Qualifying Community-based Mobile Crisis Intervention Services, essentially giving federal funding to assist local governments in creating mobile response units focused on providing emergency assistance to those experiencing mental and substance health crises.

Such major policy changes would not have happened if were not for Floyd’s death. They simply were not being discussed with the urgency they are now.

There are also ideas that go beyond these policies, including calls to abolish the police completely; supporters of that concept argue that policing is too corrupt to be reformed and that there is no place in modern society for armed security forces with little accountability. If there is not complete agreement on how far to go, it is clear that it is time to start moving, and the magnitude of Chauvin’s trial is indicative of that need.

The Chauvin trial is not the final battle in the fight against police violence

If Chauvin is found guilty, it will feel momentous, given how few misconduct cases even go to trial. It would seem as though there was a sudden shift in who the judicial system gives advantage to.

But as important as the Chauvin trial is, it must also be said that it is no synecdoche for police violence and misconduct. It is one case.

Should Chauvin be convicted, and there is no guarantee he will be, that won’t mean justice for all other families and communities that have lost loved ones to police violence, or who have seen someone dear to them lose time through improper imprisonment or assault. It will mean the government has closed a single case of misconduct, that what Chauvin did was wrong.

“What we cannot do is rest all of our hopes on the trial when, in essence, what we’re talking about is a system that makes this behavior permissible in the first place,” Hunter told me. “That system will remain intact after this trial is over, irrespective of what the outcome ultimately ends up being.”

That the trial is focused on a single act doesn’t mean that it can’t have a broader impact, though.

As Minister JaNaé Bates, communications director for advocacy groups ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota, told me, “We’ve seen way too many police be able to kill Black people and not be held accountable. So this is a way for us to actually take some real bold steps for making sure this doesn’t happen again and again and again.”

Depending on the jury’s decision, there are likely to be very different initial responses. If Chauvin is convicted, many will celebrate, feeling — as George Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd recently said — that they are at last “able to breathe.” Should Chauvin be acquitted, there is likely to be an outpouring of anger and people taking to the streets.

Flanked on either side by Black men in light colored suits, Philonise — wearing sunglasses, a black suit, white shirt, and a tie with brown, blue, and white stripes — holds bouquet of yellow and red flowers. He has on a mask that says 8:46; originally, it was believed George Floyd was restrained by Chauvin for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The trial has clarified that it was actually more like nine minutes and 46 seconds.
Philonise Floyd (center) visits the site where his brother George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

But the long-term response will be the same: a continued struggle to change policing and to dismantle the structural racism that has warped the institution. Only when that struggle succeeds will a truly just society exist — the type in which all feel equal.


George Santos’s messy expulsion vote, briefly explained


How Israel fractured the left and united the right


Vox podcasts tackle the Israel-Hamas war

View all stories in Politics